Do you see yourself in black-and-white terms? Good or bad? Smart or dumb? A success at work or a long-time failure? (This post is not about the movie.)
Many people show this dichotomous thinking, also known as either-or thinking or all-or-nothing thinking. All-or-nothing thinking, especially in response to a rare misstep or a bit of bad news, is a source of psychological problems according to cognitive-behavioral therapists and other clinicians. Some people can unfairly beat themselves up or catastrophize to the point of depression and anxiety (e.g., Burns, 1999).
Therapists might stress how everyone makes mistakes. Come on, you’re not a failure. It’s not the end of the world. Therapists try to pull you back into the shades of gray.
Do you see other people in black-and-white terms? Good or bad? With you or against you? Willfully evil or victim of circumstance?
When others behave negatively against us in some way (even if just disagreeing with our strongly held views), we usually in the moment explain their behavior as willful evil or prejudice (or ignorance). All-or-nothing.
In the moment when we may be upset and not think clearly, there is some logic to all-or-nothing thinking. This person hurt us – our pain is real – so this person can’t be an innocent victim or a good person at heart. Right? Therefore it must be the other thing (willful evil or prejudice).
In explaining others’ behaviors, this all-or-nothing thinking usually amounts to the fundamental attribution error (FAE), in which we overly focus on personal characteristics and intentions and overlook situational factors.
But the truth is something in between person and situation. People’s behaviors are usually caused by a combination of personal and situational factors – not just one or the other – even when people mistreat us (e.g., Myers, 2013).
Bosses who yell might be having a bad day (in addition to being mean). The tailgater might be desperately late for a vital meeting (in addition to being reckless). Situational factors do not excuse bad behavior, but to ignore the situation leaves our explanation incomplete.
In the classroom, when I apply what we know about the FAE to explaining genocide and terrorism, some of my students object. They argue that “there are no circumstances that can excuse such evil.”
Indeed. But explaining is not excusing. Of course genocide and terrorism are evil, and there is no excuse. But there are usually additional circumstances, and the more complete our explanations, the more likely we can prevent future cases of such horrible acts.
To explain evil behavior, some social psychologists actually do go too far the other way to an all-situation explanation. Philip Zimbardo and many others point to Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment to say evil behavior can be all situationally caused. In this experiment, students played the roles of guards and prisoners in a mock prison in the basement of a university building, and the student-guards ended up cruelly abusing the student-prisoners (Zimbardo, 2007).
But a later study demonstrated that students who are willing to volunteer for such prison roles are already of particular personality types that are more prone to aggression and prejudice (Carnahan & McFarland, 2007).
So again, it’s not just the situation. Personality can also be a cause. Shades of gray.
After the recent shootings of nine black people at a South Carolina church, the governor of South Carolina correctly pointed out that we are not born with hate. Hate is taught. Nelson Mandela said the same thing. The white shooter may be evil and hateful and racist, but it is likely that various factors in his immediate or life situation also contributed to his behavior, not that anything can ever excuse his heinous actions.
It takes more time or brain power to think in shades of gray – it may not be realistic in the moment after a tragedy – but thinking this way can help some of us to avoid depression.
And thinking in shades of gray will help us to avoid the FAE in explaining others’ behaviors toward us.
Burns, D. D. (1999). The feeling good handbook. New York: Plume.
Carnahan, T., & McFarland, S. (2007). Revisiting the Stanford prison experiment: Could participant self-selection have led to the cruelty? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 33, 603-614.
Myers, D. G. (2013). Social psychology (11th ed.). Boston: McGraw-Hill.
Zimbardo, P. (2007). The Lucifer effect: Understanding how good people turn evil. New York: Random House.